I News: Sex workers are relying on food banks to feed their kids – Covid-19 is pushing them into destitution
Women are worried about eviction and risking their health by working because they cannot survive any other way – they urgently need Government support
I got a text from Jilly a couple of days ago. “I had a stripping job on Saturday and was forced to do it as broke and I had to do extras,” she wrote. “I felt very scared as they were threatening and no social distance and all that.”
When I called her she was standing in line at a food bank with her two children in tow. She was close to tears.
Jilly is a single mum in Newcastle with two small children. Like so many women in our network she suffered years of domestic violence and went into prostitution to get together the money to be able to leave. Before Covid-19 she worked in strip clubs and did outcalls to private parties.
Sometimes, after an “all nighter”, she would complain to me that the cost of childcare took all her earnings but she would then calculate how much less she would earn in other jobs and feel grateful that she came home with anything at all.
She was just about making ends meet before Covid. We spoke in the first week of April and she had worked out that if she stopped paying her rent and lived off her savings of a few hundreds of pounds she could manage until May. We spoke again in July just as the first national lockdown ended. Her income was still non-existent because the club where she worked remained closed and there were no private clients. She was only surviving because family and friends gave her food and small amounts of money for other essentials.
Then second lockdown hit. Her messages over the last two weeks go like this:
“Thank you for the food vouchers, it’s a massive help. I’m struggling at mo as schools closed down and I never thought I’d be in this situation it’s so hard.”
“Can you tell me if the law on Covid has changed. Am I allowed to escort? Will I be fined?”
“J and S’s classes are told to self isolate for 14 days as I believe S’s teachers had the virus and a boy in J’s class. I’m trying to educate them with a old iPhone as my laptop won’t work and it’s very hard.”
The food vouchers she mentions were donated to us. We’ve distributed hundreds. This is help that the Government has refused to provide. Back in March we called for emergency payments for sex workers in crisis, worker status so that we can get sick pay, wage relief and the benefits that other workers can claim, healthcare regardless of immigration status and a moratorium on arrests.
Many sex workers did not apply for self-employed grants, even if they were eligible, because of the stigma, discrimination and illegal status associated with the job. In New Zealand, where sex work has been decriminalised, sex workers were able to get wage subsidy grants and benefits without the need to disclose they are a sex worker.
Thousands of people wrote to their MP with our demand for financial support, an end to arrests and for criminal records to be expunged. Three MPs put forward written questions in Parliament asking what was being done to protect and support sex workers in the pandemic.
Other MPs from across parties wrote back to emails about our demands sent by their constituents. Their responses ranged from supporting the decriminalisation of sex work, to outlining their work against poverty and highlighting the small increases to Universal Credit whilst ignoring the problems highlighted by a parliamentary committee which found the roll out of this benefit had pushed many more women into “survival sex”.
The Government’s response to a question by the MP Lyn Brown that its “priority is to tackle harm and exploitation associated with sex work and prostitution,” and that it “believes that people who want to leave prostitution should be given every opportunity to find routes out,” was hard to swallow. Are they living in the same society as the former homelessness tsar who raised the alarm about growing destitution in the pandemic, warning mothers could have to “go out and prostitute themselves, so that they could put food on the table.” Government indifference is so profound that it has taken a footballer to force them to feed hungry children.
It is hard to know what to be most worried about by Jilly’s texts. So many women are using food banks, so many women are worried about eviction, so many women are risking their health by working because they cannot survive any other way. Shockingly raids and arrests have continued. Abuse, threats, stalking, rape and other violence have increased as men throw their weight around knowing that desperate women have little redress. What chance do we sex workers have of getting justice against violence when the victims commissioner warns that rape has effectively been decriminalised?
Our only hope is that this crisis forces those who have segregated sex workers off from other women and other workers and retained moralistic and judgmental attitudes to sex work to reassess their position. Jilly’s last message to me was about an article she saw about a woman MP pushing for clients to be criminalised to reduce prostitution. She wrote: “If she really wants women not to do sex work, give us money to make sure we can feed our kids.”
Niki Adams is a spokeswoman for the English Collective of Prostitutes